Epic Crunch Is Epic

There have been a lot of games that fed into my desire to be a game designer, but at the top of the heap sits Unreal Tournament 2004. A great many of my opinions about shooter design, level design, and tools design are strongly inspired by that game and its excellent engine and toolset, with which I became intimately familiar during my work on Gem Feeder and various custom maps. I came to hold the opinion that Epic, the game’s developer, was the pinnacle of development studios doing the kinds of games I wanted to work on. Simply put, I made it my career goal to become a game designer for that company.

I applied, and was shot down — probably due to having no industry experience at that time, so it was no big surprise — but I kept that goal alive. Persistence is key, or so they say.

I got into the industry via another studio, planning to work my way up to my goal. A few years passed, and the first tech demos for Unreal Engine 3 started to surface. The new tech got me really excited, reaffirming for me Epic’s supremacy as a developer. Then Gears of War launched, and I loved it. That game showed that Unreal Tournament wasn’t just a fluke, and that the UE3 tech they’d been showing off was the real deal. I thought, “For sure this is the direction I want to go. I need to work on these games.”

Well, I’ve been in the industry for five years now, and I still don’t work for Epic. But now, I’m not so sure I want to. The biggest part of that has to do with me being incredibly happy with the team I’m with now, the project we’re working on, and my role in it all. I really couldn’t want for much better, and I’m surprised and delighted to have stumbled into such a great situation so early in my career. But there’s another side to it, and that’s some of the comments that have come out recently from Epic president Mike Capps and Gears of War 2 producer Rod Fergusson.

First there was this, via Greg Costikyan’s blog Play This Thing:

Mike Capps, head of Epic, and a former member of the board of directors of the International Game Developers Association, during the IGDA Leadership Forum in late 08, spoke at a panel entitled Studio Heads on the Hot Seat, in which, among other things, he claimed that working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.

Capps was backed up by Gears producer Rod Fergusson at last month’s GDC (via GamesIndustry.biz):

“I am a believer that if you’re going to make a great game, and there is that caveat, I believe that crunch is necessary. I believe it’s important because it means your ambition is greater than what you scheduled out. Going in with that idea that crunch is necessary means you can plan for it. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Crunch should be driven by the ambition of the team, and not the inaccuracy of the schedule.”

I do not believe in crunch. It is not a necessary evil, and it’s certainly not required to make a great game. Crunch is the result of a failure of schedule, or a failure of discipline. Period.

The dominance of the 40-hour work-week is not an accident. It’s backed up by reams of empirical evidence dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, evidence that has continued to support the 40-hour work-week despite the massive changes in our society over the course of 100 years. It is well-known and well-proven that productivity drops off dramatically beyond 40 hours, especially when overtime hours are worked for many weeks in succession. The IGDA’s Quality of Life initiative compiles much of this data in their white paper, articles, and presentations.

Productivity aside, 60-hour work-weeks wreak havoc on family and personal lives. Good luck having any hobbies outside of work (unrelated hobbies being a key advantage for game designers, incidentally). Good luck starting, or keeping, any kind of meaningful relationship. Good luck raising your fucking children.

Consistent overtime turns humans into drones, which is the kiss of a death for any creative endeavor. You would think one of the world’s foremost game developers would understand that, would feel some sense of professional and social responsibility to use their considerable influence to encourage sane working hours and healthy work-life balance in an industry that so desperately needs these things.

Epic need only advocate for good quality-of-life, or at the very least not advocate for crunch. But instead, two of Epic’s top people are trying to sell us all on the idea that crunch is good. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when Mike Capps made his comments at the Leadership Forum while seated on the IGDA Board of Directors.

I’ve held a lot — a lot — of respect for Epic over the last ten years. I’ve consistently held up their tools as the right way to make games, and pushed the teams I’ve worked with — both amateur and professional — to learn from what we see there. But Epic should hold their work-life balance to the same standards as their technology. It would be good for their employees, good for their image, and good for the industry at-large.

Our responsibility to society increases with success. This applies to individuals and corporations, in the games industry and beyond it. With great success comes great power, and with great power, as they say, comes great responsibility. And I strongly believe that a responsible game studio is one that rejects crunch, embraces work-life balance, and still produces great games.

3 thoughts on “Epic Crunch Is Epic

  1. Joshua Vaughan


    I was just poking around Ev’s blog and found another Josh on there, and another Josh is games no less. So let me give you a virtual hello!

    I really liked this post, and someone who has drifted from crunch to crunch in the three studios I have worked for I think it’s easy to pick apart the dynamics of crunch.

    The first problem is the profitability conundrum. Have you made your employers enough money today? Do you ever think you will? In all likelihood you probably can’t, but a budget is a budget a budget and everyone is in a nuclear arms race for quality and ship dates. Bigger sooner is decidedly better. Even among successful studios there is an almost categorical lack of confidence, a feeling that the work they do has no substance or will not mean something outside of the narrow launch window for which they are aiming. Sadly if they just calmed down, had a little more faith in the products they produced and let things simmer a bit they could find both the productivity and the happiness they are looking for.

    It’s not surprising to find the guys at Epic pushing that end of things. They have been on the bleeding edge of dredging out bigger, better, buffer, badder, more. They have ridiculously talented artists and engineers working on laughable works of art. Sorry, but they have taken all of these incredibly talented people and produced some of the most laughably transient fluff that you could imagine. Being a space marine should be a sheer terror, and utterly horrifying experience that should take the worst mentally damaging components of combat experience and compound with the raw terror that only a human in those circumstances could feel. Instead we get fearless supermen jumping into the fray of an onslaught with all of the bravado of NFL linebackers on gameday. Space cocaine is a hell of a drug, and near as I can figure the only explanation for the way they act.

    Clearly in a bit of life reflecting art the head guys think that crunch is great. It’s like war only no one dies. But it’s a subtly corrosive element to what should be the greatest job on earth. Game developers should never have to envy an insurance salesman. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are sacrificing the marrow of our lives. But where greed and uncertainty collide we find animosity and as usual those employees, the lattice work of people in the lower ranks, get to feel the blunt trauma of planning gone bad.

    There are few things we can do to ease the pain. First you can’t prevent all crunches, but you can limit there duration and there impact. You can call slippage a signal, instead of an obstacle. Planning should be dynamic and well thought out, but your plans are always going to change. Embrace the madness, embrace the disruption, embrace life and learn to slip gracefully and I think everyone wins. At the end of the day we are in the business of making things fun, and you can’t get there letting people make life hell for the creatives trying to cram the fun in there. Great blog man, hope you don’t mind my comments.

  2. invicticide

    @Joshua Vaughan:
    I don’t mind your comments at all! Provoking discussion is one of the goals of this blog; there’s just not that many people that know about my little corner of the internet yet. :(

  3. Pingback: A Question To The IGDA « Third Helix

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